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An Ear-splitting Cry: Gender, Performance, and Representations of Zaghareet in the U.S.

At the opening of a recent annual “Under a Desert Moon” concert presented by Sahara Dance, a belly dance studio located in Washington, DC, one of the teachers began by telling the audience that the dancers would appreciate vocal feedback during the show. Holding a microphone with one hand and the other in front of her mouth, she demonstrated the practice known in Arabic as zaghareet, asking audience members to imitate her sound. This pedagogical interaction with an ethnically and generationally diverse audience on the campus of American University illustrates some of the complexities of translating sonic practices across cultural and economic divides. Zaghareet carries very different weight in a Palestinian wedding in the West Bank, where it is one piece of a larger formation of celebratory experience, than it does in a belly dance performance in Washington, DC, where it is used in part to generate authenticity in a tradition both geographically and culturally removed from the Middle East.

Located somewhere between singing and yelling, ululation occupies a unique position in the spectrum of human vocality. The sound is created by touching the tongue either to the sides of the mouth or the teeth in rapid succession, and it is characterized by a piercing sound quality enacted in the upper vocal register.

https://soundstudies.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/zaghareet-egypt.mp3

Having taken belly dance classes in the U.S. and seen a number of performances, I thought I had a sense of what ululation was and what it represented. The more I ran across it in the course of my dissertation research, however, the more I wanted to know about its historical background and affective meanings across contexts. In other words, what are the cultural genealogies of zaghareet in the Middle East, and how has the sound been perceived and represented in the U.S.? Although ululation is performed in a range of locations in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), my research is on U.S.-Middle East sonic encounters, and thus I will focus primarily on that context in this post. In particular, I became interested in why female voices typically perform zaghareet, and how its circulation in U.S. media and pop culture fit into larger narratives about the Middle East before and after 9/11.

Zaghareet is auditorally conspicuous, and in U.S. during the postwar decades before 9/11, it was often framed as a sonic encapsulation of an Arab exotic. The sound itself came to invoke elements that constitute classic Western stereotypes about the region known as the Middle East: veiling, gender oppression, desert wandering, and pre-modern ritual. Its status as a primarily female practice made it appealing as a sign of difference, since the West has been notoriously preoccupied with the status of women in the Middle East (see Chandra T. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses;” Lila Abu-Lughod, ed., Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, among others). Zaghareet poses a contradiction to this orientalizing logic, as it works against the image of the oppressed Arab woman “silenced” by her surroundings. Instead, her voice takes on an uncanny resonance, indicating the tantalizing alienness of Arab culture. In a post-9/11 U.S. context, zaghareet become directly correlated with premodern barbarity, taking on more menacing anti-American associations. By taking a critical approach to the practice of zaghareet and its representations I hope to deflate some of these prevalent views and help to develop a new framework for thinking about aural exoticism.

Celebration of Egyptian revolution in DC, 2011, Image by Flicker user Collin David Anderson

Celebration of Egyptian revolution in DC, 2011, Image by Flicker user Collin David Anderson

Zaghareet’s combination of high pitch, loud volume, vibrato, and tongue oscillation contributes to its prominent, distinctive sound. In Jennifer Jacobs’ dissertation on ululation in the Levantine context (the term Levant refers to a region made up of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, and other areas in the Eastern Mediterranean), “Ululation in Levantine Society: The cultural reproduction of an affective vocalization” she points out that zaghareet typically last approximately 3 1/3 seconds, which is longer than the articulation of most words in speech, but not beyond the length of a typical speech phrase (111). Thus, though it is not speech or singing, zaghareet is related to these vocalizations in the sense that it lasts approximately the length of one breath. The practice is most often performed by women, and its acoustic intensity is remarkable considering that in an indoor setting with the performer near the microphone it can reach 85 dB, a level that can cause hearing damage with prolonged exposure. These components highlight the significance of zaghareet as a primarily female performance, making the practitioners audible at a level that isimpossible to ignore.

Woman at pro-Palestinian rally in France, Image by Flickr user lookingforpetry

Woman at pro-Palestinian rally in France, Image by Flickr user lookingforpetry

Zaghareet takes place within a unique set of circumstances with a range of other sounds occurring simultaneously, and therefore should be conceptualized as part of a web of social meanings and practices, not as a discrete element to be observed on its own. The history of zaghareet (and ululation more generally) reaches back to ancient Greece, where the practice was referred to as ololuge, an onomatopoetic reference to the sound. In the 21st century Levant, zaghareet is often part of social gatherings where live music and dancing are also present. While most often situated in celebratory social settings, zaghareet can also take place in a variety of everyday circumstances, but in almost all cases it connotes farah, or joy. Performers generally do zaghareet to express their excitement, delight, and/or encouragement to others present. The practice tends to be contagious in that after hearing it others tend to join in, but the exact origins of the sound can remain mysterious due to the fact that most practitioners cover their mouths with their hands or clothing. This produces an omnipresent effect that both dislocates the listener and develops shared experience, and the collectivity of the performance magnifies its affective power. Jacobs writes, “When one person begins performing zaghareet, another person might join in; then, a third person might also join just as the first vocalist is dropping off. This overlapping of performances creates a perceptual experience of zaghareet as something layered, continuous, and emanating from different spatial locations, a haunting bodily experience, especially for a first-time listener” (75). This is complicated by broader soundscapes in which it is performed, which may include music, clapping, firing of guns, traffic, and other sounds.

In addition to performance setting, gender is a key component of zaghareet. While it is performed more often by women than men, in certain contexts and communities, men do participate. Jacobs describes one case in which men had demonstrated that they could skillfully perform zaghareet, but only minutes later jokingly denied that they knew how to do it when she asked. This emphasis on modesty is also apparent in the way that most female practitioners cover their mouths while doing zaghareet to hide the movement of the tongue, which tends to be considered immodest or impolite. In this Youtube clip, for example, the zaghareet performer covers her mouth with her hijab:

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And as is shown in the clip, zaghareet often takes place in homosocial environments where men are not immediately present, providing space for playful exchange between women in ways that heterosocial settings may not. The homosociality of the sonic practice is related to its affective reverberations, as the sound is used to convey bonds of attachment, conviviality and mutual appreciation between women. In this sense zaghareet embodies these interpersonal connections, and also reinforces them through its aural intensity.

In American and European popular culture, zaghareet has played a notable role in framing depictions of the Middle East, particularly through the female body. In the years following World War II, zaghareet samples often marked the Middle East as wild and exciting. Lebanese-born singer Mohammed El Bakkar, for example, used the sound of zaghareet on his song “Yalla-Yalla” from the 1958 album The Sultan of Bagdad, one of several albums he recorded for the Audio Fidelity label in the late-1950s marketed to a mainstream American audience.

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“Yalla-Yalla,” which translates loosely as “Come with me,” features finger cymbals, clapping, and female zaghareet, along with jovial calls from El Bakkar at the ends of phrases, conjuring a celebratory setting. All of these elements–along with the album cover photo that shows El Bakkar lounging on a cushion with two beautiful dancers standing over him–combine to create a quintessential exotic scene for many American listeners.

sultan

Although unintentionally kitschy at times, the 1962 British epic Lawrence of Arabia—a film which has the dubious distinction of having no spoken lines by a woman in its 3 1/2 hour running time—represents zaghareet quite seriously.  The ululations first appear about half of the way through the film, where Lawrence and the Arab forces set off to fight the Turkish at Aqaba, and women provide blessings and encouragement.

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Lawrence of Arabia is a classically orientalist film about the scope of British empire, and in this instance, zaghareet accentuates the majesty of the scene where Lawrence rides beside his Arab counterparts through the desert with veiled women calling from the cliffs above. Like the previous example, the women here constitute part of a foreign landscape, and their cries of encouragement serve along with the visuals to construct a multi-sensory experience of otherness.

Zaghareet has taken on more explicitly violent associations in a post-9/11 American context, where it is often coupled with Arab depravity and linked to terrorism. Zaghareet was demonstrated in a newsclip aired on CNN, Fox, and several other news networks displaying Palestinians in the West Bank “celebrating after 9/11.” One woman in the clip briefly ululates in front of the camera, connecting the sound to perceived Arab hatred for Americans.

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The video went viral, and reactions to it exemplify the extent to which zaghareet has come to symbolize a new stereotype in the post-9/11 era: the depraved Middle Eastern Other. This formula collapses and combines the categories of “Arab” and “Muslim,” and, although it complicates the figure of the terrorist as male, since it is a woman who is shown celebrating after 9/11, it also reveals western anxieties about the power that Lawrence of Arabia represented as harnessed by colonial forces.

Screen shot by author

Screen shot by author

A parody of the viral news clip appeared on a 2004 The Simpsons episode entitled “Bart-Mangled Banner” in which Bart accidentally moons the American flag at a basketball game, and subsequently faces a public outcry from critics calling him anti-American.  The nightly news shows the “overseas” response, in which a woman wearing niqab holds up a photo of Homer and says “Simpsons be praised! Praise be to Springfield!” and then performs zaghareet against a backdrop of celebratory gunfire. This satire hints at the absurdity of controversies over such displays, but it also reinscribes the idea of the Arab/Muslim female as a source of danger, a new element of anti-American hostility that became associated with the sound after 9/11.

Unlike previous impressions of zaghareet, which focused on the sound as part of an exotic terrain, post-9/11 visions tend to locate practitioners in a distinctly antagonistic matrix. The distinctive sonicity of zaghareet makes it particularly susceptible to portrayals that frame it as a sign of Arab barbarity. For certain performers, however, such as belly dance students in Washington, DC, zaghareet is not subject to this type of racialized logic, and is instead treated as an ethnic novelty. In American film, TV, music, and a range of other contexts, zaghareet is becoming increasingly audible, and it is a phenomenon that deserves thoughtful and critical attention.

Meghan Drury is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies at the George Washington University. She received an MA in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside in 2006. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Aural Exotics: The Middle East in American Popular Music 1950-2011.” This project examines the interplay between popular music and American cultural representations of the Middle East from the mid-20th century to the present, illustrating how music and sound acted a means of consolidating and disseminating a range of ideas about Middle Eastern culture in the American mainstream. She is particularly interested in the way that sound increased the visibility of Arab Americans both before and after 9/11, offering a space for negotiations of identity. More broadly, Meghan’s interests include sound studies, U.S.-Middle East cultural relations, and Arab American cultural performance. 

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Rallying Cries as Suffering Sounds: “Allah-O-Akbar” and the Aurality of Feminized Iranian Suffering

By July of 2009 dozens of pitch-black videos began to appear on YouTube. Documenting ambient noise, in some cases narration and, most prominent of all, impromptu collective outcries of “Allah-o-Akbar,” these videos resonate with an urgent gusto, punctuated with an eerie sense of desperation through faint echoic reverberations. By the level of desperation audible in every voice, at once dulcet and melancholic in tone, there is a distinct sense that Allah very well may be called forth. While most of these videos received scant attention, one entitled “Inja Kojast”](translated as “Where is this Place”) received over 174,000 hits (as of writing).

It was dubbed with English, Spanish, and Japanese subtitles, was sampled by a music producer (“Tehran’s Roof Tops _Remix”) and also played a prominent role in the 2010 French film Fleur du Mal. What is enabled, invoked, and signified by the layering of these multiple and disparate incantations? What is affectively evoked in the widespread circulation of these chants by YouTube and in Fleur du Mal? Why was this video circulated so widely and deemed so affectively resonant by disparate audiences?

Due to the fact that the Iranian government had barred entry to representatives of foreign media and systematically jailed Iranian journalists accused of being hostile to the regime, the disputed 2009 Iranian elections and ensuing protests were largely reported on by a new breed of “citizen journalists”. Filling in the information vacuum, citizen journalists tweeted and uploaded to the Internet raw video footage of protest marches and confrontations with Basiji militiamen by day – and the voices of dissent performed on Iran’s many rooftops by night. Donning the cloak of darkness, residents of Iran’s major cities climbed to the rooftops of their buildings to chant “Allah-o-Akbar” in numbers – a brief reprieve from the violent suppression of their street protests by Basiji militiamen.

“Women Smash the Shah’s Crown,” Poster from the Iranian Revolution, Courtesy of Flickr User Voyou Reserve

As Negar Mottahedeh has written in her online essay “Allah-o-Akhbar”: “The cry of “Allah-o-Akbar” was the defining sound of the 1978 protests against the Shah of Iran, during a revolution that toppled the Pahlavi monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.” This earlier revolutionary context is represented in the video for “Allah o Akbar, Khomeini Rahbar”, which hailed a politically diverse citizenry to stand behind this “rahbar” or new “leader.” The chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” was further exploited as a nationalistic call-to-arms during the Iran-Iraq war in the music video for the anthemic “Allahu Akbar Iran, Iran.” The chant’s versatility and instrumentality in this immediate post-revolutionary period is due not only to its capacity to appeal to the pious and patriotic backers of the newly formed Islamic Republic but also because of its power as a performative political rallying cry. Mottahedeh’s essay title employs a pun: the addition of ‘h’ to the word “Akbar” in transliteration changes the word to “Akhbar” or news. Although she does not elaborate on this, her title suggests that this chant is itself a form of citizen journalism, a broadcast calling forth the revolutionary spirit that Iranians pride themselves for always having at the ready. But what kind of journal is “Allah-o-Akbar”? Is it a call to arms, a rallying cry, a collective sound of suffering or all of the above?

Despite its pious provenance and deployment as the paradigmatic cry of the revolutionary uprising against the Shah, the Islamic Republic currently led by Ali Khamenei and Mahmood Ahmadinejad–which was inaugurated by these earlier revolutionary calls–has interpreted the post-2009 chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” as blasphemous and an affront to their authority. Journalist Jalal Hosseini argues that this is due in part to the fact that opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi called upon his supporters to remember the revolutionary history of this performative chant in an open letter, stating “Let’s not abandon the green colour which is a symbol of spirituality, freedom and religious mentality and moderateness and the Allah O Akbar slogan that tells us of revolutionary roots.”

Women at the Front, 2009, Image by Flickr User Raymond Morrison

As Hosseini has written,  “In a religious state, where religion is present in every aspect of life, Iran’s protestors have managed to turn religion against their government…Allah-o Akbar is perhaps the single most symbolic phrase in the Muslim world, yet Iran’s current rulers, who themselves employed this slogan in their struggle against the Pahlavi regime in the 1979 Revolution, did not tolerate the protesters’ cries of Allah-o-Akbar after the 2009 presidential election. Allah-o Akbar has essentially become a forbidden phrase.” Hosseini goes on to quote numerous Tehranis who testify to their disparate intentions behind the chanting, highlighting the ambivalence inherent to the slogan, which makes it available to Iranians of many stripes, and, as he argues, allows the calls to resonate even beyond the nation by appealing to other Muslims globally. But the widespread circulation of these videos and their popular impact on global YouTube audiences also suggests that the chanting has had an impact on non-Muslims as well.

Susan Moeller, who penned a Huffington Post piece right around the time of “Inja Kojast’s” semi-viral circulation, argues that this most recent phase of the chant’s resignification has helped to win Americans over to the protesting Iranian’s cause, writing, “watching Americans are learning to reframe the meaning of ‘Allah O Akbar’ and re-imagine the people of Iran. The pictures from Tehran are showing that Iranians are not monolithic in their beliefs.” Moeller suggests that this collective chanting has somehow cut through the status quo Islamophobic representations of a fundamentalist Iran to create an affective and empathetic pathway through which Americans can “re-imagine the people.” Moeller’s argument echoes the sentiment of the comments written on the YouTube page for “Inja Kojast,” comments like “This breaks my heart!” left by Annabanana23663 or “I have listened to this so many times already that you would think I would have moved on BUT I continue to listen and will continue to listen for there is truth in that voice of pain. And only by embracing pain can we love truth. And truth not only will set us free but without truth we cannot be free. Go you beautiful Persians. The people of the USA love you for your defiance” (by YouTube viewer HulkSmashPunyHumans).

“Where is this Place?” San Francisco, CA, 20 June 2009, Image by Flickr User Steve Rhodes

Not only were YouTube users impacted by “Inja Kojast” but the video’s representation of Iran’s rooftop chants inspired the narrative arc of French filmmaker David Dusa’s Fleur du Mal (Flowers of Evil, 2010), a film that explores the precarity and instability of Iran after the 2009 elections. Through a chanting scene in which the two main characters, Gecko (Rachid Youcef) and Anahita (Alice Belaïdi), vociferously call out “Allah-o-Akbar” on the edge of a rooftop in the avowedly anti-Islamic nation of France, they thumb their noses at both nation-states at once while also sealing their romantic bond. Perhaps in an ironic play on Khomeini’s exile in the same city, the beautiful, educated and upwardly mobile Anahita is incubated in Paris for a time while the political instability following the 2009 elections settles down. Completely obsessed with the post-election struggles that she and her friends were actively engaging in on the streets of Tehran, she daily follows every new tweet and YouTube video. She bides her time in Paris by convincing Gecko, the bellhop at her swanky hotel, to give her a tour of the city and the two soon become lovers.

Despite the somber context of the film’s main narrative preoccupations with Iran’s botched 2009 elections, this plot point, I argue, enables the cathexis of an Orientalist drive that is shared by Western audiences: a drive to consummate the desire for the feminized Muslim woman seen to have suffered under the despotic rule of Muslim masculinity. It is this same desire that gets sublimated in a consumption of feminized Muslim suffering which has led to a reductive popular reading of “Inja Kojast” that eclipses the ambivalence of and disparate intentions behind the chanting it documents. In particular, it is through the cries of the narrator’s own female sounding voice that “watching Americans are learning to…re-imagine the people of Iran” as finally available to and eligible for their empathy, attention and yearning.

Fleur du Mal weaves narrative scenes with YouTube footage of Iranian post-election street protests and, in one scene, an image of Neda Agha Soltan’s assassination. Viewed over 1,200,000 times (as of this writing), there has been a wide-scale promotion through documentary films, video diaries, songs and various other imagery of what has been called Neda’s martyrdom for Iran’s “green revolution”. This representation of a feminized Iranian suffering at the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist Iranian masculinity has become a privileged symbol for Iran’s Green Movement outside of Iran. This has enabled an affective attachment to be made which has, quoting Moeller yet again, enabled Americans to “re-imagine the people of Iran.” This time, somewhat counter to Moeller’s claim, it is not only “pictures” that are functioning to transform perceptions of Iranians; sound operates as a critical conduit to an interiority characterized by pain and suffering that has particular appeal.

Image by Shahin Edlata, San Francisco

I argue that the suffering sounds of “Inja Kojast” resonate within what I have elsewhere termed an “aural imaginary” through which Americans and the West “re-imagine[s] the people of Iran.” Through the suffering sounds of an anonymous feminine-sounding voice–reflecting upon and poetically translating the suffering sounds of a nation’s nightly chanting of “Allah-O-Akbar”– a direct link has been made to the feminized victim of Islam.

As US-backed Israeli war-drums are beaten, and as conspiracy theories regarding Iran’s hand in the recent spike in oil prices resuscitate decades-long antagonisms, we must be mindful of the multi-sensorial cooptations of empathetic and affective attachment that have constructed feminized suffering as justification for military intervention and the instrumentalization of sound in support of this. The old Orientalist desire for a feminized opening through which to re-imagine and know the radical other that is Iran has been found through a new gateway: aurality.

Featured Image: “Iran 06” courtesy of Flickr User Chong Head

Roshanak Kheshti is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies and affiliate faculty in the Critical Gender Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. She is currently completing a manuscript entitled “Modernity’s Ear: The Aural Imaginary and the World Music Culture Industry,” which theorizeshow an other to the listening self is racialized and gendered within the world music listening event. She has published in American Quarterly, Feminist Studies, Hypatia and Parallax.

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